A few years ago, when the former pro football player Martellus Bennett was looking for books to read to his young daughter, he was disappointed by his options. He had trouble finding titles with protagonists who looked like her and who had parents who looked like him.
So, unable to find the sort of book he wanted, he wrote his own—his whimsical Hey A.J. series follows the adventures of a little girl with voluminous curly hair, like his daughter’s.
Bennett is not alone as a black parent who has felt the need to take a hands-on role in selecting what books, movies, shows, and toys his child is exposed to on a regular basis. As a sociologist who studies families, I have interviewed 60 middle- and upper-middle-class African American mothers, many of whom have not just encountered a shortage of media that represents them, but are worried about the messages their kids receive from the majority of books and shows out there. They recognize that a central project of parenthood—raising happy kids with strong self-esteem—takes more (and more deliberate) effort when one’s kids are black.
The mothers I talked to generally weren’t confident that when they turned on the television, went to a movie theater, or visited a bookstore, their children would see empowering versions of themselves. One mother I interviewed told me, “I don’t want [my son’s] understandings of black folks to be from the media. You know, I want him to know black people as we are.” She and other moms I talked to—as is standard in scholarly research, I agreed not to publish any of these mothers’ names—worried about most media’s reliance on damaging stereotypes, and said they curated their kids’ media intake with an eye toward including racially empowering imagery. (For many parents with less time and money, some of these efforts would likely be even more challenging to undertake.)
A working married mother of two described to me how she thinks through her daughter’s exposure to certain TV shows. “I really tried to encourage and push Dora [the Explorer] as much as possible,” she said. “It was like, okay, she is traveling around. She is cool. She speaks Spanish. She is a kid of color.” The mom was not as keen on Disney, whose shows and movies, according to her, “are so white.” She also mentioned the existence of a variety of racist tropes in certain Disney movies decades ago.
Speaking of that history, some mothers I talked to sensed an encouraging shift in their own lifetime. “I think it has improved a lot in the last 20 years since I was a kid,” one said. “Growing up, I don’t remember seeing a book with black faces in it.” Lately, many black parents have embraced and applauded mainstream movies such as A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther, and Hidden Figures for their positive depictions of blackness. “It’s the first time in a very long time that we’re seeing a film with centered black people, where we have a lot of agency,” Jamie Broadnax, who founded and writes at the website Black Girl Nerds, told The New York Times Magazine in a piece about Black Panther.
Indeed, curation does not always mean censoring and subtracting—many parents go out of their way to add perspectives to their kids’ media diets. Some mothers in my research remembered coordinating outings to theaters with other African American mothers and children to see 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, the first and only Disney animated movie to feature an African American princess.
What is the end result of all this effort? Better self-images for children of color, parents hope. And sometimes, the beneficial effects can ripple outward. One working mother of three told me about when, while visiting a predominantly white private school, her daughter sat in with some current female students—all of them white—who were playing with baby dolls. Her daughter, upon entering the room and noticing that the girls weren’t playing with the lone black doll, scooped it up, exclaiming, “Oh my goodness! Look at this beautiful black baby and her beautiful black skin!” The doll quickly became the center of attention, and the mother told me that in the coming weeks the school ordered additional black dolls to reduce disputes among the students who clamored over the original one. She told me it was her proudest moment as a mother.